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This is how I photograph pelicans with a long lens, says Sean Weekly

(Image credit: Sean Weekly)

I have been extremely fortunate to visit northern Greece most winters, so in January I headed back to the gorgeous Lake Kerkini to guide some photography workshops for Wildlife Worldwide Travel. The lake sits on the border of Greece and Bulgaria and is home to the rather majestic Dalmatian Pelicans. The pelicans come from a very ancient family of birds, with fossils dating back nearly 40 million years. It is incredibly easy to see why these birds still hold those prehistoric looks.

Regarding subjects and the scenery around you, it can be tricky being surrounded by endless photographic opportunities; you can get overwhelmed by what you want to photograph. I knew that I wanted to include the habitat and the mountains, so I started off looking for a good, clean background of the mountains without any distractions.

The best 70-200mm lenses (opens in new tab)

Once I found the background I wanted, I took a test shot to ensure that
I had the correct exposure. I pushed my exposure and histogram as far to the right as I could without clipping the highlights. This gave me the maximum dynamic range offered by my camera and would permit the greatest latitude for editing shadow and highlight detail afterwards. Being able to pull back either the shadows or the highlights would help greatly with ensuring a great exposure on the birds, but
would also give me detail in the mountain that I could recover with some light post-production work. 

Once I had my settings and exposure correct, it was just a matter of waiting for the pelicans to float into my shot. I was waiting for a small a group of birds, as
I thought capturing a few in frame would make the image more pleasing to the eye. Like any wildlife image, an element of luck is involved and in this image I got lucky with the third pelican opening its mouth and scooping some water. 

Sean’s top four tips for photographing pelicans

1. Get to know your subject

(Image credit: Sean Weekly)
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There is nothing more important with wildlife photography than really getting to know your subject. Understanding its behaviour and habitat will reward you with some great images. You’ll have a far better understanding of their movement and will be able to predict your shots before they happen, allowing you to get set up.

• 5 tips to capture great bird in flight photography (opens in new tab)

2. Try unconventional shutter speeds

(Image credit: Sean Weekly)
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Once you’ve bagged a few great shots, change your settings and experiment with different apertures and shutter speeds. Here, I shot slightly slower (1/15 sec) to capture some motion blur as the pelicans flapped their large wings. Remember to stop down (f/18) and lower your ISO (L50) to avoid over-exposing your shot.

3. Get down to eye-level

(Image credit: Sean Weekly)
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Portrait images of animals are lovely to look at but can often lack impact when they are composed badly. Getting on eye level with your subject will add a new dimension to your photographs, enhance your depth of field and give you a new insight to the environment of your subject. Bring a bin bag to lie on if you find yourself in wetter locations.

4. Pay attention to your background

(Image credit: Sean Weekly)
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This is one of the trickier aspects of wildlife photography because you are somewhat limited to where the animals that you are photographing decide to place themselves. However, paying attention to the background and positioning yourself in a spot you can shoot from that will have a clean background will help you avoid introducing distractions.

Read more:

• Video: how to photograph birds in flight (opens in new tab)

• Full frame vs cropped sensor for bird photography – which is better? (opens in new tab)

• Follow these 6 easy steps for better bird photography (opens in new tab)

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Alistair Campbell

Alistair is the Features Editor of Digital Camera magazine, and has worked as a professional photographer and video producer.